Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
Well HO. LEE. SMOKES. I am THIRTY SEVEN MINUTES into this episode, and I am SICK TO DEATH of listening to the SHOUT-Y LOUD then grinny-soft cadence of THE MAN. THEY. CALL. NEGAN! YES!
(Randomly leans backward, sticks tongue halfway out)
I said AM? I? RIGHT?!
(Leans in close, grinning widely)
I will check back with you in one hour. WHY?! That’s when this episode is OVER. AND. DONE. This could be REAL awful! REAL. DAMN. AWFUL.
Okay, here I am one hour later, Negan voice officially turned off. That got fine at the end. The conversation between Michonne and Rick, the visuals of the mattresses burning, the secret Eugene-Rosia conspiracy. I’m into all that.
But Josh, please tell me: Why the hell did that episode need to be 90 minutes long?
This is really one of those times when you should have written the first email, because you’re better at finding positives in these situations. For me, the first hour of “Service” could have been successfully executed in about 15 minutes. Instead, with the full prancing, preening Negan performance, complete with all the tics mentioned above, the writers are counting on us being so completely caught up in the suspense of whether he’ll kill Olivia (to quote Michael Bluth: “Her?”) that we’ll follow along breathlessly as they stretch the scene into infinity.
But my God, were they not paying attention at the end of last season? We don’t like endless Negan monologues! We don’t like unnecessary cliffhangers, or even just dragging out storylines past their expiration. This show is good when it is either:
A. Exploring character in an adult way.
B. Moving briskly.
Can I just go full sacrilege here and say that I don’t like Negan, or the actor who portrays him, Jeffrey Dean Morgan? The big talking point at the end of last year was that even though we were all pissed off at the way it ended, we enjoyed Morgan’s depiction of a psychopath. I was on board for that, because I was under the impression that the ten minutes of pomp and circumstance would eventually give way to a more nuanced character. Or at least someone who took a f***ing break once in a while.
But he doesn’t! Negan is the zombie apocalypse version of a person who goes around speaking in a bad British accent all the time, where it starts as a funny quirk and becomes an annoying affectation. He gives off the vibe of someone who thinks he’s always on stage, and instead of menacing, the effect it produces is just irritating. How have his own men not killed him yet, out of sheer frustration?
And speaking of dying, I know we touched on this last week, but I have two quick pieces of advice for Negan. One, stop begging to be killed by everyone you encounter. And two, when someone like Rick keeps staring at you defiantly even after you’ve murdered two of his people, letting him live is a big mistake.
I don’t know, Josh. I have a feeling the resolution to this whole conflict will be awesome, somewhere down the line, but I’m so bored waiting for it to happen. I don’t care how mean or vicious Negan is, I don’t care how scared Rick and the rest of the Alexandrians are, and the tertiary characters are no more interesting than ever.
What I really wanted was something extremely bold from this episode—I wanted Carl or Rick to kill Negan, and let the chips fall where they may. That would have been wild, dangerous, and unpredictable. Imagine introducing a character like Negan, and then just bursting the bubble immediately. It would be nuts! What would happen in the power vacuum? Would someone worse emerge—the zombie world version of ISIS, I guess? Or could Rick play the factions against each other?
But nothing in The Walking Dead is really unpredictable anymore, and, at least to me, that’s no fun. So, fine, we’ll ride out the rest of the season watching Negan be mean, and then Rick will hatch some MacGyver plan to beat his whole army using pinecones, or something. And like I said, that will be fun, but I want something more in the meantime, and I just don’t think I’m going to get it.
So, Josh, because I’m so bad at looking on the sunny side, tell me where I missed the good stuff in the 90 minutes I just finished…I need some guidance here.
Maybe it’s the exhaustion from a weird and depressing week, but that was just miserable watching Negan and his boys rub their position of power in the faces of Alexandria, especially the creepers stalking Enid and Rosita. The producers of The Walking Dead couldn’t have known the kind of mental state many of its viewers would be in, but that was unpleasant, and the 90 minutes just dragged. It was the least special “special episode” I’ve ever seen.
But hey, you asked for me to find some positives, and while she hardly muttered a word, Rosita came alive for the first time since we met her in Season 4. Somebody has to take the lead in the resistance, and it looks like it’ll be the women, as Rosita is already scheming to make bullets and Michonne is a burned pile of mattresses away from losing it. Plus Maggie is in hiding and, I’m sure, dreaming about revenge.
Other than that, I can see why the writers are doing what they’re doing, building up to a cathartic confrontation with the Saviors, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable to watch. The strength of serialized television is that you can tell epic story arcs, but its weakness can be individual episodes where the story never gets beyond Act 1. Rick and the gang are in a predicament. There’s an antagonist who’s making their life miserable. No, like really miserable. In case you missed how miserable, Negan finished his visit to Alexandria by telling Rick that he just grabbed him by the pussy and Rick thanked him for it (I’m paraphrasing here). The closest we get to any rising action is Rosita’s command to Eugene to make her a bullet.
Rick is fully beaten, but his people are not. The best thing I can say about “Service” is that it helps set up the uphill battle to come. Not even when they were captured by cannibals or duking it out with the Governor were the obstacles facing them quite so insurmountable. They’re enslaved by an army, stripped of their guns and badly outnumbered. Rick has been reduced to a shell of the warrior he was. But Daryl, Rosita, Michonne—they’re not yet broken. Things could get very interesting. They just weren’t tonight.
So was Father Gabriel’s optimistic encouragement to Rick the worst pep talk you’ve ever heard? Could Spencer be any more insufferable right now? And where do you think Maggie is?
We are on the same page, but I almost feel bad about it, like I’ve dragged you down to my level. But to answer your questions:
1. There was a famous British Airways flight flying from London to Auckland in 1982 that flew through a cloud of volcanic near Indonesia. All four engines stopped at once, and the passengers smelled smoke. The plane start to glide, the passengers panicked, and the crew prepared to attempt to ditch over the Indian Ocean. At that point, captain Eric Moody came came over the PA to make the following announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damndest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Father Gabriel’s talk was worse than that.
(Three of the engines restarted, and they made it safely to Jakarta.)
2. Spencer is so horrible. How could Deana have spawned such a wimp? I was really hoping that episode would end with Rick beating him to death, raising moral questions and blah blah blah, but giving us a little bit of satisfaction.
3. Father Gabriel looks increasingly creepy, so I am assuming he actually buried Maggie Alive in the grave. On a serious note, though, she’s probably at the Hilltop, or somewhere she can get medical care, and it’s weird that Rick—who is SO PARANOID about collecting every gun, fearing Negan’s revenge—doesn’t seem to care what might happen when he discovers that no, Maggie is not dead.
My question for you—giving up the guns was really dumb, right? Why not just kill Negan and all his men when they visit and start a rebellion? At least they’d have the element of surprise! Now, they’ve just made themselves slaves. Like I said, we’re going to get some MacGyver action at the end of this half season…or maybe at the end of the full season, which is an awful proposition…but Rick is not really earning my confidence as a leader right now.
So, Josh…let’s put you in the showrunner’s chair, and make it your job to save The Walking Dead. You know what you’re working with—the Hilltop (feat. Jesus, if the ‘next week’s scenes’ are to be believed), King Ezekiel’s people, Alexandria, and the Neganites. How are you digging yourself out of this? What’s the solution to the quagmire that is season seven?
And finally, what’s up with them not destroying the stupid gun inventory before Negan visits? PRETTY GREAT SOLUTION, RIGHT? Destroy the thing that tells them exactly how many guns you have, and then hide a few in the forest where nobody can ever find them.
I don’t know what to think right now.
One last criticism, and then I’ll start thinking about what we can at least hope for. Remember last week, when we couldn’t stop talking about what a great character Dwight had become? I take it all back. There was no nuance, no ambiguity when he reveled in Rosita’s pain and discomfort. It was as if last week’s glimpse into his backstory showed some other character.
As for how to turn this season around, here’s my three-step plan:
1. Reign in Negan’s sadism. Give us some backstory that makes him feel more like a human and less like a comic-book monster. Play up the charm and humor and you can get away with more darkness.
2. You’ve shown how hopeless things look for Rick’s people. Begin the push-back sooner rather than dragging out the misery. Our guys are going to need a win soon, no matter how minor. Let Rosita, Eugene and Michonne carry Rick for a while. And give us some hope with Maggie and her kid.
3. More Ezekiel!
It looks like we’re headed back to the Hilltop next week, so my hope is in Jesus. It’ll be interesting to see if those roles are reversed next week with the Hilltop ready to fight and Rick preaching caution.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.